A Preference for Torquemada

Michael Wood

  • Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC 1874-1908 by William Oddie
    Oxford, 401 pp, £25.00, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 955165 1
  • The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
    Atlantic, 187 pp, £7.99, December 2008, ISBN 978 1 84354 905 5

‘I have often had a fancy,’ G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy (1908), ‘for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.’ The man would arrive, ‘armed to the teeth and talking by signs’, and try to plant the British flag on the Brighton Pavilion. A little later Chesterton says: ‘I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England.’ He likes this trope and returns to it in detail in The Everlasting Man (1925), adding the variant story of the boy who couldn’t recognise the exotic secret of his village until he got far enough away from it. ‘That, I think, is a true picture of the progress of any really independent intelligence today.’ Home is not only where the heart is, it is our only chance of having a heart. Everything else is an abstraction.

Only by understanding this proposition ‘can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it’; realise the full excitement of the ‘pursuit of the obvious’; acknowledge that ‘ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary.’ In Heretics (1905) Chesterton even talks about ‘the ecstasy of being ordinary’, which seems to be going a bit far, even for an ordinary man. The trouble with Kipling, we learn in the same book, is that ‘he is a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet. He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice.’ Chesterton, of course, is not quite claiming to be ordinary, or to have always been at home. That is the point of his fancy. He discovered England by mistake, and discovered his mistake in the process, along with Kipling’s narrowness and a host of other national failures. His highest praise for H.G. Wells is that ‘he has come to the most dreadful conclusion a literary man can come to, the conclusion that the ordinary view is the right one.’

It’s not Chesterton’s fault that his idea should have become so popular with people who didn’t have to go to Oz to find out that home was best, but there is something baffling in his insistence on it, especially since its interest varies so vastly with its forms of expression. Astonishment at the world is surely an attractive proposition, and so, in a more subtle way, is the pursuit of the obvious – as long as one pursues it rather than parading it. But the claim that ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things is a mess; as is Chesterton’s announcement, in his preface to Orthodoxy, that he is seeking to offer ‘an explanation, not of whether the Christian faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it’. If he has come to believe it, it can be believed – what further demonstration could we want? The question is whether it should be believed. Chesterton thinks it should, but is trying not to insist and so falls into his logical hole. The same goes for the ordinary things. If they are extraordinary after all, we just return to where we started, only to take another path: extraordinary things are more valuable, they just aren’t the things we thought they were. But why do we have to ‘contrive’ to be astonished as distinct from just being astonished?

Reading Chesterton over the last few weeks, I came to feel I was living out a tiny equivalent of his romance, but in reverse. I set off expecting to find a version of Englishness and ended up off the coast of a new island, an angry, troubled spot dominated by a man armed to the teeth and talking by signs. It’s true I was not properly prepared for the journey. I had read Chesterton on Dickens and on the Victorian age; read all the Father Brown stories; and read or heard quoted many memorable epigrams. I had seen shadows of his invention in Borges, snatches of his thought in T.S. Eliot, echoes of his paradoxes in Larkin, and an allusion to his imagery in Nabokov (I’m thinking of the ‘democracy of ghosts’ in Pnin, which recalls Chesterton’s definition of tradition as ‘the democracy of the dead’). I thought, and still think, that his assessment of the English 19th century is about as shrewd as such things get: ‘It is no idle Hibernianism to say that towards the end of the 18th century the most important event in English history happened in France. It would seem still more perverse, yet it would be still more precise, to say that the most important event in English history was the event that never happened at all – the English Revolution on the lines of the French Revolution.’ But I had not encountered Chesterton the Christian apologist, and I was, I confess, the man who had not read The Man Who Was Thursday.

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